Outside In

Michelle Rhee’s vision for Washington, DC, schools is turning the system inside out

January 8, 2009
by David McKay Wilson

Originally published in the winter 2009 issue of the Harvard Kennedy School Bulletin.

Plucked from the nonprofit education world to become Washington, DC, schools chancellor last year, Michelle Rhee MPP 1997 has taken the city by storm in her first year on the job.

She closed 23 schools, laid off close to 100 employees in the district’s central office staff, and fired 250 teachers who lacked proper certification. She restructured 27 of Washington’s remaining 120 schools and challenged the teachers union to give up tenure rights in exchange for a salary plan that would boost salaries to as high as $122,000.
Feeling pressure to perform, Rhee says, can motivate. It certainly motivates her.

“Every day, I feel pressure because I have 47,000 kids in my purview,” says Rhee, 38, the mother of two children who attend the Washington, DC, schools, in an interview in early August. “I want every educator to feel that pressure. What we are doing is incredibly important, and if you are going into a classroom, you need to produce for the kids.”

Rhee now oversees a budget of close to $1 billion. The students, overwhelmingly from poor black families, have a long way to go. The 2007 National Assessment for Educational Progress ranked the Washington, DC, district dead last, behind all 50 states, with just 12 percent of its eighth-graders proficient in reading and just 8 percent up to par in math.

Rhee’s selection in 2007 made her the latest big-city schools chief to come from outside the education establishment. Like Joel Klein in New York City and Arne Duncan in Chicago, Rhee had served neither as a principal nor district administrator. She also lacked the traditional academic credentials for such a position. But Rhee had made a name in education circles as founder of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit she developed as she left the Harvard Kennedy School that addresses the issues of teacher quality and teacher shortages in inner-city schools.

Through that work, she came to the attention of Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, who had just been granted control of the district schools by the city council. He turned to Rhee, vowing to back her bold initiatives to turn around a district viewed as one of the nation’s most troubled.

At first, Rhee balked, unwilling to give up her role as a social entrepreneur for the demands of heading up a sprawling government bureaucracy. She feared Fenty wouldn’t support her in the face of the community uproar she knew could erupt. But Fenty insisted she had his support, promising Rhee he was the only one in his administration who would tell her “No.”

“I told him he didn’t want me for the job because he was a politician and he was interested in keeping the noise down and keeping people happy,” says Rhee. “I asked him what he was willing to risk. He said, ‘Everything.’

After years of standing on the outside, it was her chance to be on the inside, at the top.

“My gut instinct was that I needed to do this, in order to change the face of public education,” she told a gathering at the Kennedy School in September. “I wanted to show that it was possible for poor and minority kids to achieve at the same level as their wealthy white counterparts.”

Education Trust President Kati Haycock, who has known Rhee for a decade and chairs the New Teacher Project’s board, says that Fenty’s unwavering support, along with Rhee’s steely drive to do what’s best for kids, has helped move the reform agenda.

“Michelle is very courageous and very smart, but she also has a very courageous mayor,” says Haycock. “What she is trying to do is take a system that has been systemically mis-educating mostly low-income black kids and turn it into a system where they are getting quality education in every classroom. And she’s in a big hurry to do it.”

Rhee, the daughter of South Korean immigrants, grew up in the suburbs of Toledo, Ohio, aware of the poverty downtown. Her father, a physician, would remind her she was blessed to grow up in an upper-middle-class family and that the poor kids in Toledo were no less deserving. After graduating from Cornell, she joined Teach for America, the nonprofit that sends college graduates into inner-city schools. She calls it “the defining experience of my life.”

Rhee taught at Harlem Park Elementary School, one of Baltimore’s lowest-performing schools. Her first year was miserable, with her second-grade class scoring at the bottom of the district’s competency tests. But the next year she teamed up with a third-grade teacher, combined the two classes, and they taught that group for two years. By the time those children completed third grade, they were scoring in the top tier.

“People told me I couldn’t do it because the kids came from poor homes, they didn’t get breakfast, and no one was helping them out,” she recalls. “The reality was that they went from the bottom to the top, and their home environment didn’t change. What changed were the adults in front of them who were teaching. That gave me the conviction that academic outcomes are dependent upon what the adults are doing.”

After three years in Baltimore, she came to the Kennedy School, where she earned a degree in public policy. There she honed her skills in data analysis and statistics, which she says provided a strong foundation for her work in the field of education, which has become increasingly reliant on test-score data to drive policy discussions.

Toward the end of her second year at Harvard, she had lunch with Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp, at which they discussed the difficulties urban districts have recruiting quality teachers. Kopp suggested Rhee develop a program to address that problem and offered her office space at Teach for America for the nonprofit start-up.

At the New Teacher Project, Rhee worked with urban districts to recruit college graduates and mid-career professionals with an unapologetic appeal to aspiring educators who want to work in some of the nation’s toughest school districts.

A decade later, she left the nonprofit to run an urban school district with more than 5,000 employees, several labor unions, and the volatile political pressures from Washington’s diverse community. She has retained some of the personal touch that served her well working for a smaller organization. She still responds to every e-mail, a practice that can keep her at her computer at home late into the evening.

She says reporting directly to the mayor has helped push her reform agenda. With his support, Rhee began to reshape the district. Too many DC schools were half-full, as students had fled to private schools or public charter schools, which now educate almost 30 percent of Washington’s children, outside the purview of Rhee’s administration. Closing 23 schools at once spared the city a prolonged battle over which schools would be shuttered. Rhee held a difficult series of public hearings over nine weeks on the closures, at which time the anguished, and often angry, voices of parents and school staff were heard.

At the meetings she listened carefully, and the final closing plan reflected what she learned at those meetings. The closings allowed Rhee to cut operating costs because she had fewer schools to heat, clean, and staff. She vowed to use the savings to ensure that all 62 elementary schools had a library, physical education, music, and art program when the school year opened in September. She delivered on that promise.

“People were yelling and screaming and picketing,” she says. “But we did it, and every school will have those positions filled.” Rhee says she’s able to handle the opposition because she’s able to keep the criticism from getting inside her.

“I don’t take things personally,” she says. “I never really cared what people think of me. I came to understand why six chancellors had come and gone in the 10 years before I arrived. If you let this stuff get to you, you start thinking, ‘maybe they are right.’ And at that point, you have lost.”

Rhee has weathered the storm as an outsider in a city of insiders. She’s a Korean-American running a school district that’s predominantly African-American. And she’s an outspoken critic of the alliance between the Democrats and teachers’ unions in a city where Democrats rule the urban political roost.

“The Democratic Party has been extraordinarily weak on education and education policy, and its ties to the labor unions have got to be broken if we are going to transform the public education system in this country,” says Rhee.

Rhee’s national stature has been burnished by the continuing coverage of her tenure by the Lehrer News Hour, where veteran education journalist John Merrow had produced six segments of “Leadership: A Challenging Course” during her first year in office. In December, Rhee was on the cover of Time magazine.

“She’s very engaging, yet reserved, and very direct,” says Merrow. “She says what she means and means what she says. That kind of candor is refreshing.”

Rhee’s biggest battle in her second year involves her plan to raise teacher pay while eliminating tenure, which has been the heart of teacher contracts across the nation. In Washington, teachers can be granted tenure after two years on the job. Rhee’s plan would create two tiers of service. Under the “red” tier, teachers would retain tenure rights in exchange for a 28 percent raise over five years, the Washington Post reported. Pay for teachers in the “green” tier would rise from $46,500 to as much as $101,000 by 2010. Teachers with a decade on the job could see their pay more than double to $122,500.

By giving up tenure, teachers would subject themselves to annual evaluations based on the performance of their students, which would determine salary increases.

“It’s going to be a game-changer,” said Rhee. “The bottom line is that teacher union contracts are one of the big problems we have in public schools. I don’t want to demonize the union. These contracts are signed by two parties, and those who have signed these contracts are just as guilty. But I’m not going to sign my name to a document that puts the rights and privileges of adults above the best interests of kids.”

The contract had yet to be resolved by mid-September. First, Rhee was still wooing foundations to help provide the funding to so dramatically raise teacher pay. The teachers union was also decidedly split on the proposal.
The Washington Teachers’ Union is a local of the American Federation of Teachers, whose president, Randi Weingarten, collaborated with Rhee when both were working in New York City. Rhee was setting up a fellowship program to attract teachers to the city while Weingarten then led New York’s teachers union.

“This whole notion that you scare people into better teaching will garner great headlines and make you look like a warrior, but it never works,” says Weingarten. “The DC schools will improve when there’s cooperation and collaboration between teachers and administration.”

But Rhee maintains new work rules would help instill a culture of accountability among the district’s adults, as well as its students, who need 24 credits to graduate, including three lab sciences and math courses up through Algebra II. This past summer, her staff audited the transcripts of each incoming 12th-grader to make sure they were on track to graduate. The audit found hundreds of students scheduled for classes that would not lead them to graduation, including several signed up to take algebra classes they had already passed.

Rhee gets her hackles up over such mismanagement, especially when it is students who suffer. A high school diploma is the minimum credential for a young adult entering today’s job market.

“Nobody was paying attention to the fact that they’d already taken algebra,” says Rhee. “How can we hold the kids accountable until we do our job? We have to hold the adults accountable too.”

David McKay Wilson is a New York-based freelance journalist.

Michelle Rhee (left) speaking on a panel at Harvard Kennedy School with Anthony Williams. Photo credit Martha Stewart.

“People told me I couldn’t do it because the kids came from poor homes, they didn’t get breakfast, and no one was helping them out. The reality was that they went from the bottom to the top, and their home environment didn’t change. What changed were the adults in front of them who were teaching. That gave me the conviction that academic outcomes are dependent upon what the adults are doing.”

—Michelle Rhee, on her teaching experience in Baltimore.

John F. Kennedy School of Government 79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-495-1100 Get Directions Visit Contact Page